Plate 17 from Philip Clüver's Germania Antiqua (1616). Though many through the ages would have us defined like this, that's not really what we look like.

As a writer, specificity in the meaning of the words we use is important to me. I think a lot of miscommunication happens because people have a different idea of what a word means, which can lead to misunderstanding and even arguments. We should know what we mean when we use a word, and our listeners/readers should have that same meaning in mind when they hear/read it, or we won’t understand each other. Although I am not always as successful as I would like, I try very hard to have my meaning and word choice match up as precisely as I can. (And GG frequently points out to me in editorial review when I fail on that count!)

As thoughts of vocabulary and clarity were stewing in my brain the other day, I realized I’d never accurately defined “Heathen” on this site (or Ásatrú which means the same thing as Heathenry, but Heathenry is easier to pronounce so I’m sticking with that word). Yet I throw these (not particularly common) words around with abandon as if everybody understands exactly what I mean when I use them. (Whoops!) So I sat down to compose a concise definition for what makes somebody “Heathen.”* It was harder than I thought.

I grew up in the Christian church (mainstream Protestant), so I’m used to defining a religion in terms of a god, a text, and, most importantly, a central narrative – a major myth or historical event that believers ascribe to which makes them a member of that faith. As Christianity is the religion most people are familiar with, I’ll start with that definition to give you an example of what I mean when I talk about specificity and clarity of definition when it comes to a religious faith.**

  1. There is one God (Jehovah), and He spoke to/connected with the Jewish people.
  2. Jehovah’s instructions for mankind are revealed through The Bible (either as the literal word of God or as the world’s primary holy text written by man and inspired by god).
  3. Man committed original sin and fell from grace, thereby denying himself his connection to God in the afterlife
    1. This is typically believed to be because Adam ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge which condemned all humanity through him, but the story can be symbolic of each person’s inability to live without sin.
  4. To redeem man and allow him back into God’s presence after death, God sent his only son (Jesus) to Earth to die on the cross as a propitiating sacrifice.
  5. Anyone who accepts Jesus as the son of God who sacrificed himself to redeem mankind from sin will experience salvation and be allowed into Heaven upon death.
    1. Some believe that additional things may be needed such as confession, partaking of the Eucharist, baptism, spiritual cleansing via the Holy Spirit, etc. but this is different among different denominations and different believers.
    2. A few branches believe in Universalism, the idea that there is no Hell and Christ’s sacrifice applies to all people (or at least all reasonably ethical people) regardless of what faith they profess.

Of course Christianity has a lot more to it than its definition. A Christian likely also believes in loving his neighbor, forgiveness, charity, and many other positive moral qualities, but these moral qualities do not define Christianity. A person can love his neighbors, forgive with abandon, and practice regular acts of charity, but if he doesn’t believe in Jehovah, the Bible, and the central narrative of salvation from sin through Jesus’ death on the cross, he is not a Christian. But if a person believes 1-5 above, they believe in the Christian faith. (Whether or not they are a good example of a Christian is, of course, a different matter).

So how do you define Heathenry?

Back to my quandary of defining my own faith. Heathenry has myths and collections of poems and stories that we draw from, but there isn’t a single, defining “holy text” that we consider to come from the gods like The Bible, The Koran, or The Tao. We have gods, but many Pagans worship them who are not Heathen. We don’t have a specific historical event that created us, so there is no “central narrative” in the way I am used to thinking about it. But there are common concepts that are unique to Heathenry and all Heathens believe in, and these are what I can build a definition from.

If a person believes the following, they are Heathen (again, whether or not they are a good example of one is a different question!). Because the whole purpose of this article was to define Heathenry (as I’ve never done that), I’m going to go into a little more detail here in hopes of better communicating in the future!

  1. “Wyrd’s nature changes the world under heaven.”- The Wanderer Each person is a part of wyrd, [say weird] the greater fabric of the universe that extends through time from our ancestors to our progeny and outward through our current community and the land we live in. We are each one stitch in a greater work.
    1. What happens to the whole of wyrd is more important than what happens to an individual. At death the actions and good (or bad) name of an individual are all that is left on Earth. We must live in such a way that we improve wyrd and leave a good name for those who come after us.
    2. Much of each life has been woven by other people before a person is born; we have no control over what country we’re born into, our family’s finances, if we live in a safe community, etc. But we do have control over what we do with our circumstances. We weave other people’s strands as we weave our own (just like somebody else wove ours as they wove their own). A good person lifts conditions for himself and his community.
    3. On the other hand, we are each only a tiny part of a big tapestry; we cannot save everyone or fix everything. The world is imperfect. Don’t put all of it on your shoulders.
  2. We strengthen wyrd through frith. “Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another… The responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds.” (Groenbech, The Culture of the Teutons Vol I., pp. 42-43)
    1. Frith means taking care of your kith and kin – your home, family, friends, and physical community – before you worry about anybody else. The wyrd of your kin and kith is most tightly woven with yours, and so you have the greatest impact here. (Plus if each community took care of their own business instead of messing with everybody else’s, the world would probably work right.)
    2. Because of frith, self-sufficiency refers to the community not to the individual. I don’t have to do everything myself, but I do have a responsibility to the health and well-being of my entire community.
    3. Frith means loyalty beyond mistakes. You only have a small pool that you can call your own; don’t lose them over something petty.
  3. Frith must be kept with your ancestors. They are looking out for you, just as you will one day look out for the generations that come after you. You don’t have to know who they are for them to answer. Light a candle, talk to them, make them a part of your life.
  4. Respect the land, but be wary of her too. Nature is not on your side, but if you work with her carefully, she will (usually) provide for you. Above all, leave her in good stead for your children. We are here for a short ride, but the Earth remains a part of everyone’s wyrd.
  5. The gods created the world and they created us, but their existence does not revolve around ours. They are available for conversation or consultation – in fact most of them appreciate it when we check in with them – so feel free to pour a libation or light a candle and seek advice. Sometimes they may even do you a favor if they think you’ve got a just cause.
    1. There are probably other gods, but we call on the gods of Europe who were carried from India through Turkey, the Slavic lands, and into the continent. At one time our gods were worshipped from Eastern Europe to Spain, down to Rome and up to England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland (which is why we sometimes, a little arrogantly, call them The European Gods*** 🙂 ). For most Heathens these are the gods of our ancestors, and we find an intrinsic connection to them through our wyrd.
    2. While the gods are more powerful than humans and their reach extends ours, they have personalities, are not “perfect” (whatever that means), and don’t have an obligation to love us unconditionally. Honor and talk to them all you like, but don’t casually ask for favors. Your first resource should be your ancestors; they’re more predictable and less likely to have competing interests calling on them.
    3. We can read about our gods through myths handed down over the ages, but they are stories written by men – frequently men who weren’t Heathens – and cannot be treated as infallible. Find joy and inspiration in the stories, but in choosing your actions, common sense is more important than adherence to a text. “Better than good sense a traveller cannot carry.” Havamal, W.H. Auden translation

Of course we have values and stories and a lot of other things going on in addition to this, but if somebody believes 1-5, I consider them a Heathen. If any Heathens out there would like to argue my definition, please do so in the comments!

How do you define your faith? How important do you think it is to have a standard definition for each faith for us to rely on in conversation?

* I frequently encounter the idea that people are whatever religion they say they are, but I do not believe self-claim is enough. Words should have more rigorous meaning than “whatever somebody wants it to mean.” I cannot accurately claim to be Buddhist any more than I can accurately claim to be a polar bear. Each of these words has an established meaning, and I don’t fit the criteria for either. While the finer nuances of a word’s meaning can be debatable, the basic definition should not be completely free-form or the word ceases to have any meaning at all.

** For our Christian readers, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth (beliefs in your head? 😉 ). This is the definition as I understood it from growing up Christian, it is the definition as stated by most religious texts I have read, and TheScott (who is Catholic) pretty much said the same thing when I asked him what his definition was. If you would like to write an alteration to my definition in the comments, feel free to do so, but please let us know where it comes from.

*** The Celtic gods went to the UK (and into France), the Greco-Roman gods surrounded the Mediterranean, the Slavic gods had Eastern Europe, and the Heathen gods filled mainland Europe. Most people think of them as Norse gods because that was the last area to convert to Christianity, but their reach was much further, and there are a lot of crossovers between the four pantheons.

+ Featured Image: Latin Dictionary by Dr. Marcus Gossler